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A Profile of Neil French – A Brief History of a Copywriting Legend

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Neil French
Screengrab via YouTube

Superstar copywriters are few and far between in the advertising industry. Neil French is at the top of a very short list (one which also includes David Abbott, Tony Brignull, Dan Weiden, Mike Lescarbeau, Luke Sullivan, Lionel Hunt and, well, anyone featured in the D&AD Copy Book).Now, learn a little about a man who is still considered to be one of the best writers in the business.

Neil French - The Early Years

French got into the advertising business in a very different way than most creatives do these days. After trying his hand at several careers, including bullfighting, he was asked to work at a friend's advertising agency, in the account department.

His natural charm, quick wit and sharp mind meant that he didn't stay an account person for long, and after a few years he started his own creative shop - Blacker Hyde - with a former colleague. The rest, as they say, is history; a great history that you can read about in Sorry For The Lobsters , Neil French's recently published autobiography.

A copywriter's copywriter, Neil French is famous for writing long ads that often have almost no visuals at all. It's not unusual to see a Neil French ad that is completely bereft of imagery and yet still draws the reader in with a snappy headline and deftly crafted copy. His work for ibidphoto.com was remarkable as it was for a photo stock house and was composed from entirely from words; the headline - "Don't bother to read this, the picture's missing" - was not only a challenge but an indictment of the state of modern advertising. You can see the ad here at Neil French's website. It's one of the best ads you'll ever read.

Neil French and Controversy

Sadly, with many great artists, there are always a handful of controversies surrounding them, and Neil French is no exception. On October 6 th, 2005, French gave an address to an audience in Toronto and said something that was always going to be incendiary at the very least:

"You can't be a great creative director and have a baby and keep spending time off every time your kids are ill ... Everyone who doesn't commit themselves fully to the job is crap at it."

Never one to shy from speaking his mind, his brazen honesty has usually served him well in his career. But in this case, it could not be overlooked, especially after the very public reaction of Nancy Vonk, the Co-Chief Creative Director of Ogilvy Toronto. He resigned from his esteemed position as the worldwide Creative Director at WPP Group.

Later on, he was cited as being a major influence on the career of a female creative, Jureeporn Thaidumrong, who was named "Asia's Creative Person Of The Year" in 2006. "Contrary to what people may think and have been saying for the last couple of years, he's very supportive of woman creatives . I can guarantee that because I am actually one of the women he helped. I wouldn't stand where I am today if it wasn't for him," said Thaidumrong.

When asked about it in 2009 by an Agency.Asia journalist, French talked openly about the whole affair. "Don't forget that the now-infamous occasion was fermented by a woman who had previously had an ear-bashing for being away on long leave when I visited the office. It was, palpably, a most efficient revenge … but had the film of the entire evening been made available, anyone with a sense of humour or irony would have seen the pottiness of the reaction."

French has also been widely accused of creating spec ads that could never possibly have ran, and then showing them as sold and printed pieces of work. Listen to French's own point of view on scam ads here.

Neil French and The World Press Awards

Despite the growing number of award ceremonies now taking entries across the world, French saw a gap in the recognition department and founded The World Press Awards - a show that is limited purely to advertising that appears in the print media, and nothing else. No digital, web, cell phone, TV, radio or guerrilla. Some say it's an award show that was designed solely for the likes of Neil French wannabes.

A Little-Known Fact About Neil French
Most people would consider his stint as a bullfighter to be the most bizarre blip on his advertising resume, but there's another one that's not as well known. Before committing full-time to the ad game, Neil French was the band manager for heavy metal rock icons Judas Priest.

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